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Human Rights & Development: Reflections about States, Local Governance & International Institutions Hans-Otto Sano

Time (GMT +01) 11:30 13:00


Dr Hans-Otto Sano, Director of Research, Danish Institute for Human Rights, Copenhagen


Marta Foresti, ODI


Ignacio Saiz, Amnesty International

Hans-Otto Sano's presentation covered the following areas:

  1. The characteristics of failed and developmental states.

  2. What human rights has to offer development

  3. Perspectives on human rights and state transformation

Sano highlighted difficulties in defining what is meant by developmental states. He suggested that the concept is tautological because developmental states are defined by the fact that they are developing. The term was coined to describe the 'Asian Tigers', which were clearly 'developing'; but he questioned how, for example, a state like Malawi should be defined What lies between failed and developmental states? Perhaps the concept of a 'developmental state' relates too closely to donor concerns such as capacity to spend aid money effectively. He argued that general freedom and security concerns are crucial areas that are not sufficiently addressed in the developmental state discourse.

Sano said there are three levels at which human rights has something to offer development:

  1. international level: global governance

  2. national level: improving systems of justice and legal protection; and,

  3. local level: rights-based development

At the international level, Sano described how growing links between global institutions and civil society provide:

  1. increased access to international debates/decisions for local organisations

  2. potential for improved accountability of international organisations, as they become accountable to civil society as well as states

Sano discussed Kaufmann's argument that higher standards of civil and political rights lead to improvements in economic and social rights (income per capita and child mortality rates). He explained that this is just a hypothesis, but believes it is important to explore connections in both directions. For example civil and political rights can contribute to the prevention of corruption and oppression which may facilitate social and economic rights.

He listed three major qualities of human rights in terms of empowerment:

  1. Human rights provide a platform based on a conception of justice. Local actors will often be motivated by justice issues and convene on human rights issues;

  2. They give legal, and not only moral, legitimacy;

  3. They open avenues for civil society advocacy and networking; e.g. India, where campaigns against cast discrimination are organised around the human rights agenda.

Sano argued that there is an important role for human rights in accountability. They give citizens an avenue for control, and also commitment from the state. Furthermore, human rights have something to offer a pro-active state, a duty-bearer conscious of its obligations. The term 'collaborative activism' (see Richard Falk paper: "Human Rights and Global Civil Society. On the Law of Unintended Effects" in Paul Gready (Ed), Fighting for Human Rights, Routledge, London, 2004, pp. 33-53) can be used to describe a proactive community making claims, coupled with a state that is actively trying to address its duties on rights issues.

Sano concluded by saying that human rights and rights-based development does create stronger states, but stressed that human rights should be seen as a complimentary, rather than a sole strategy. The combination of strategies he advocates is:

  1. Reinforcement of human rights: Human rights are important for protection and dignity of individuals, enhancing national and international accountability and strengthening the international order, both legally and politically.

  2. Good Governance and improved institutional capacity

  3. The Poverty Agenda: The MDGs are currently outside the human rights framework; however there are interactions e.g. service delivery in the health or water sectors.

Points made by the discussant Marta Foresti included:

  • Are human rights important in the developmental states? This topic featured regularly through the meeting series, particularly during the first meeting where Leftwich discussed the main characteristics of developmental states.

  • Is the notion of developmental state useful? Foresti challenged Sano's assertion that the concept was primarily about defining developmental characteristics in terms of spending donor money. However, she noted that during the seminar series a lot of time has been spent debating what donors can do about developmental states, while much of the discussion suggests, perhaps not too much (e.g. on stimulating incentives local governance).

  • She agreed that human rights are important for improved accountability. However, accountability of international organisations and their, if not obligation, in fulfilling peoples rights remains a challenge.

  • Foresti emphasised the central role of human rights for non-discrimination and equity in development practice. She warned that mainstream development often runs the risk of reinforcing and replicating discriminatory practices, but was confident that human rights approaches could work towards addressing this weakness.

  • Moving onto state formation, three concepts came up often during the meeting series. In order come up with an agenda to make states more developmental the focus must be on:
    i. setting minimum standards or thresholds beyond which the state can collapse or failed. Human rights can help to guide a debate around minimum standards and commitment to them;
    ii. the importance of context at national level for defining policies that will enhance development.
    iii. Identify realistic priorities , as explained by Grindle in relation to the good governance agenda. Human rights can help set priorities through the principles of accountability, non-discrimination and participation.

  • Despite recognition that human rights are indivisible, the separation between social/economic rights and civil/political rights persists. This division risks limiting the debate about these two broad categories, as opposed to specific rights in relation to their interdependence with development processes and outcomes. Furthermore, there is a risk of feeding the belief that in the context of fragile states only civil political rights are possible and that economic and social rights are 'luxury goods' or 'second class rights'.

  • Finally, Foresti questioned the strength of the link between rights and the MDGs, primarily because equity is no where to be seen in the MDG agenda. She argued that the MDGs are significantly limited by not addressing issues of discrimination and inequality.

The discussion raised the following main points:

  • Can development happen without human rights? Are there examples of developmental where human rights were central from the beginning of the developmental process and not just a consequence of it? In the long term development is not sustainable without human rights. Furthermore, social justice is at the heart of development and end in itself. Context is also crucial. For example, though states may have formal rights regimes, in some contexts (India) civil society is well developed and versed in working with rights, however in others (Malawi) the starting point is very different. There are interesting distinctions depending on how the right regime has entered into the context.

  • Individual vs. collective rights (e.g. women, children, etc.). Some worries about defining the agenda for 'indigenous people' as a group since it binds them to a particular agenda. Collective rights are important, but it is also the case that women have individual rights. Also, individual rights can be very important in addressing cross-group issues such as HIV/AIDS, and also in the context of upholding rights legally.

  • The legal and non-negotiable dimension of human rights: does it help development? On the one hand the problem is that human rights are seen as an option by development actors, but they are not; you can't undermine treaty obligations. On the other, human rights may be a legal obligation but the context into which they are introduced is extremely important. For progressive realisation the processes by which human rights are consolidated must be understood and this happens differently in each context. It is also important to acknowledge that even where rights are embedded in the law, the actual policies and proactive may not reflect incorporation. In India, for example, the law is not the problem since there are legal protections, but in practice there are informal channels by which the social structure impacts on institutional practice.

  • Categories of rights and development priorities. What is wrong with prioritising between different categories of rights, in relation to what is realistic in developmental terms? Foresti argued that there is nothing wrong with prioritising or with acknowledging that different rights have distinctive consequences for development, depending on a number of factors including the context, resources etc. However C&P and E&S rights are not necessarily the most helpful categories to be applied when trying to prioritise, whereas individual or more specific sub-groups of rights maybe (e.g. right to information, right to water, right to food etc.)

The meeting was concluded by the Chair, Ignacio Saiz, with the following remarks:

  • The Philip Alston article, 'Ships Passing in the Night: The Current State of Human Rights and Development Debate Seen Through the Lens of the Millennium Development Goals' (Human Rights Quarterly 27, 2005, pp. 755-829) argues that there is a lack of connection between human rights and development. This illustrates how much work we need to do to understand each others approaches and discourses, and how they can be integrated.

  • Human rights are not just a normative framework but a set of values. The issue is how they can be integrated in practice into development.

  • The human rights discourse, similar to the development discourse, has returned to a focus on the state in asking the question; what are the characteristics of a rights respecting / protecting /fulfilling state? Ideally the concept of a rights respecting state will be meshed with the concept of a developmental state, fully linking the goals of development and human rights.


The tenth meeting in the '(Re-)Building Developmental States: From Theory to Practice' series saw Dr Hans-Otto Sano discuss human rights and development.